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'... a powerful story [...] very much for our times'

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Edited by Steven Oliver, Sunday, 29 Jan 2023, 10:24

RSC A Christmas Carol Programme

The programme included two short essays, the first was by John Bowen an academic at the University of York and focused on the social background to the original novella. 

'It was a young society, still close in many ways to the Regency of Dickens' youth; a world less stuffy and less secure than we might assume'

'It was a youthful world, not least because so many die young.'

'These decades [1830's and 1840's] were two of the worst to be born into or to have to live through in modern times, as a widespread a systematic social crisis engulfed almost every aspect of people's lives.'

'Britain at this time was rapidly moving towards its commercial and industrial zenith, but working people saw few of its benefits'

Bowen discusses the exploitation of children in the workplace and lack of regulation and often of physical protection in factories.

'The 1830s are often called the 'Angry Thirties' and the 1840s the 'Hungry Forties', for good reason'

  • Bad harvests in the late 1830's
  • Corn Laws keeping price of bread high
  • 1832 Great Reform Act extends franchise, but not to working class
  • The New Poor Law [1834] removed some protections and introduced the workhouse
  • Persecution of Trades Unions

[The essay could also have mentioned the first cholera epidemic in 1831/2 and the beginning of the Great Famine in Ireland in 1845]

Bowen characterises Dickens at this time as '...both riding high and haunted by his past' a celebrity after the success of early novels, but with his 'shameful family history - of poverty, imprisonment and suffering'

The essay discusses Dickens' response to The Parliamentary Report of the Children's Employment Commission and makes links to A Christmas Carol as mentioned in A111. Bowen suggests that Dickens 'succeeded, at least in part' in striking a blow for the 'Poor Man's Child' - as contributing to an increased recognition and campaigning for reform, with some practical legislative consequences in the 1840s. 

Bowen seeks to address George Orwell's critique that Dickens only sought an individual 'change of heart' rather than addressing systematic causes of poverty, suggesting the virtues he promoted were essentially communal ones and necessary in the absence of other routes to social support. 

Orwell too credits Dickens with wanting much more than this, and states that moral criticism of society has its own 'revolutionary' credentials, 

'Progress is not an illusion, it happens, but it is slow and invariably disappointing. There is always a new tyrant waiting to take over from the old — generally not quite so bad, but still a tyrant. Consequently two viewpoints are always tenable. The one, how can you improve human nature until you have changed the system? The other, what is the use of changing the system before you have improved human nature? They appeal to different individuals, and they probably show a tendency to alternate in point of time. The moralist and the revolutionary are constantly undermining one another.'

Bowen concludes by highlighting the roots of A Christmas Carol: in Dickens's childhood experience; fairy tales and parables; and social circumstances of his day. He suggests that whilst it draws on Christian morality and values its focus is on change in 'the here and now' and to marvel at the positivity that Dickens brings despite his personal experiences.....'an 'ever-generous anger.'

RSC A Christmas Carol Programme

The programme is illustrated with a variety of images - some centred around social circumstances and communal responses to poverty. The credits for the image above point to the 'Science and Society Picture Library' of the National Museum of Science and Media.

Searching the library the original images is: ‘A Night in the Streets of London’, c 1857. Photograph by Swedish-born photographer Oscar Gustav Rejlander (1813-1875). 

There is also an interesting short biography for Rejlander on the National Museum of Science and Media website. According to his entry in the ODNB, a mirrored image of this photograph was used by the Shaftesbury Society for over a hundred years to highlight the plight of homeless children.

The image below is a contemporary one of a woman working in PPE during the COVID pandemic in a church preparing boxes for a food bank.

RSC A Christmas Carol Programme

Quotations were placed throughout the programme, each displayed on a 'Christmas Gift Tag' with period decoration. There were 14 quotations in total, three were from Dickens himself and there were quotes also from GK Chesterton (an admirer and literary critic of Dickens) and John Forster (Dickens's friend and biographer) - but the most striking in terms of attempting to make links between contemporary political discussion and A Christmas Carol were four by members of the ruling Conservative party:

'Too many people in Britain, we argue, prefer a lie-in to hard work... Once they enter the workplace, the British are among the worst idlers in the world' 

Kwasi Kwarteng, Priti Patel, Dominic Raab, Chris Skidmore, Liz Truss: Britannia Unchained 2012

'To have charitable support given by people voluntarily to support their fellow citizens I think is rather uplifting... Inevitably, the state can't do everything, so I think there is good within food banks.'

Jacob Rees Mogg September 2017

'It is very hard to believe that the right to paid holiday is an absolute moral right.'

Jacob Rees Mogg March 2013

'Dignity is not just about how much money you have got ... It matters if you are earning that yourself, because if you are earning it yourself you are independent and that is the first step towards self-respect.'

Jeremy Hunt, October 2015

RSC A Christmas Carol Programme

The programme contrasts differences in the social and economic circumstances of children living in the Victorian period and the present day. This is done under the headings of School, Work, Toys and Food. Overall there are of course dramatic improvements in all areas - but the programme also makes reference to rates of inflation in 2022 and the significant increase in food prices. It end by saying that 'Thea parcel from a food bank is given to a person facing hardship every 13 seconds.'

The second essay in the programme is by Sir Christopher Frayling and explores the adaptation and performance of A Christmas Carol.

RSC A Christmas Carol Programme

Frayling discusses Dickens's public readings and the presence of multiple 'bootleg' versions on stage by the 1850's, emphasising Christmas jollity over social conscience. He suggests that by the start of the 20th century A Christmas Carol was being seen as a tale for the kiddies, in which the 'nasty ogre...becomes a fairy godfather', 'Neverland rather than now-land'.

'Then' Frayling says, 'came the cinema.' He mentions a number of film adaptations:

  • 1901 - first film adaptation, short 'trick film' centred on special effect of Marley's ghost
  • 1914- version made by London Film Company which, 'had avoided "those vexed social questions" which were in the original novel, but that this was to be applauded'
  • 1935- British feature film Scrooge had as 'centrepiece a singing of the national anthem by the great and the good inside the [London] Mansion House ...while the poor and needy huddled outside the gates joined in - showing ... we were "all in this together"'
  • 1938- MGM version centred on Bob Cratchit with Scrooge learning the hard way to make better use of his money
  • 1951- 'Alastair Sim' version, weaves 'post-war rationing and the origins of the welfare state into the story' has an emphasis on the characters of Ignorance and Want and incorporates an entirely new character 'Mr Jorkin' as the face of greedy capitalism.
  • 1970- Scrooge becomes a screen musical with all singing, all-dancing jollity
  • 1984- George C. Scott as a US-made market-driven Scrooge, not a bad man just one not yet using the power of 'caring capitalism', missing out on getting his '80's greed to do good.
  • 1983-2009 - Animated and puppetry versions, featuring Disney characters, Muppets, Bugs Bunny and (apparently) Barbie
  • 1946 - Frayling's stated preference, Frank Capra's 'It's a Wonderful Life' - a loose adaptation, but one which he thinks balances 'the darker side of A Christmas Carol and the jollity'

Overall, Frayling's main points are around how Dickens's story is reshaped by the concerns and priorities of the times - perhaps with an understandable foregrounding of the social messages at times when societies are economically 'hard-pressed'.

RSC A Christmas Carol Programme

RSC A Christmas Carol Programme

Alongside a timeline of Dickens's publications a number of key dates are highlighted with reference to social and political events across the same period. There are references to Peterloo, the Reform Acts, Chartism, the Factory Act, Irish Famine, repeal of the Corn Laws and the Indian Rebellion.


The programme to this adaptation of A Christmas Carol seems particularly rich in academic and social commentary and the production team appeared happy even to court a little controversy by presenting contemporary political quotes in the text. Overall I think it did a very good job of encouraging the audience to think a little beyond the traditional boundaries of a 'feel-good' Christmas panto.

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Steven Oliver

Scrooge's nexus

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Edited by Steven Oliver, Sunday, 29 Jan 2023, 10:25

I've really enjoyed some of the new perspectives that A111 can bring to 'old friends' like A Christmas Carol. A simple one has been to put aspects of the novella in the context of their (possible) settings. The podcast 'The Rest is History' produced a Christmas Carol special in 2020 and sections were recorded at sites that may have featured in the book. I spent time pausing the podcast and looking up locations on Google Maps 'street view' as the story moved up and down Cornhill in the financial hub of modern London. 

This was my final summary image, hopefully next year I'll find some time to visit some of the sites on foot! 

Aerial view of Cornhill area of London, with possible locations for settings within A Christmas Carol

The podcast is available here: https://play.acast.com/s/the-rest-is-history-podcast/132-a-christmas-carol

Permalink 1 comment (latest comment by Steven Oliver, Monday, 26 Dec 2022, 11:16)
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Steven Oliver

Does this reputation rest on its laurels?

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Edited by Steven Oliver, Sunday, 29 Jan 2023, 10:25

I've enjoyed the section of A111 dedicated to examining the use of portraiture to create and promote 'reputations' for Elizabeth I - both during her lifetime and, in the figure below, following her death in 1603. 

Unknown artist (English school), Queen Elizabeth I in Old Age or Allegorical Portrait of Queen Elizabeth Ic.1610, oil on panel. Corsham Court, Wiltshire. Photo: © Bridgeman Images.

Beginning to learn to decode courtly art; the meaning of colours, clothes, the 'language' of flowers, a whole string of props from sieve's to stoats, certainly adds to the enjoyment of what otherwise are perhaps rather dull (certainly static and mannered) images. It has also been interesting to discover the way in which the written and visual arts combined in this tiny world of elite courtiers. Exploring the 'Allegorical Portrait', and the images of 'Death' and 'Time' that bookend Elizabeth, a number of authors point to links to the works of the Renaissance poet Petrarch - and in particular his 'Triumphs', written between 1351-1374.1,2,3.

Image of Petrarch

Francesco Petrarca, 1304 - 1374. (Petrarch) Florentine poetStefano Tofanelli & Raphael Morghen. Out of Copyright, National Galleries of Scotland

In this collection of six poems, Petrarch describes a sequence of linked allegorical battles, victories and triumphal parades, starting with that of Love, Love is then conquered by Chastity (personified by Petrarch's muse, Laura), Chastity is defeated by Death, Death by Fame, Fame by Time and Time by Eternity. 

'Laura' was one persona through which Elizabeth could be presented as having 'acceptable' female power (along with Diana, Deborah, Judith etc.). In this instance chaste but triumphant, without having to engage in actual physical conflict. There are visual links to the 'Triumph of Chastity' in particular in a number of portraits of Elizabeth, the 'Sieve' portraits link her with the vestal Tuccia who miraculously proves her chasteness in holding water in a sieve. Tuccia features in the 'Triumph of Chastity', as does Dido, another character in at least one sieve portrait. There are quotes from the Petrarch poems in some portraits as well.

The first lines of Petrarch's 'Triumph of Fame' certainly appear to capture the look of Elizabeth in the 'Allegorical Portrait'.

When cruel Death his paly ensign spread

Over that face, which oft in triumph led

My subject thoughts; and beauty's sovereign light,

Retiring, left the world immersed in night”

      ‘The Triumph of Fame’(Petrarch)

But Roy Strong and others see links in this posthumous portrait through all of the sequence of Triumphs,1,2,3 highlighting the presence of a laurel wreath (the mark of a Roman Triumph) at the very apex of the picture and the inclusion of both 'Time' and 'Death'. The general view seems to be that the portrait was created at a point in James I's reign, possibly in the 1620's when he was losing favour in some quarters whilst attempting to establish a marriage for his son Charles with the daughter of (Catholic) Philip III of Spain. Making this then a piece of Protestant 'protest', showing the old Queen in eternal triumph, having backed the 'right side' in the religious divide. 

However, not all authors see the portrait in this light. The collection of essays 'Dissing Elizabeth' brings together a number of perspectives on dissent from the vision of 'Good Queen Bess' which was expressed in a variety of ways. This includes through visual images and the book's editor, Julia Walker, considers the Allegorical portrait in her chapter on Elizabeth's reputation after her death, 'Bones of Contention: Posthumous Images of Elizabeth and Stuart Politics'4

J. M. Walker Ed. (1998). Dissing Elizabeth: negative representations of Gloriana. Duke University Press.

Walker views the portrait as a mocking parody of the 'Armada Portrait' which we studied in A111. She highlights the mirrored seated postures, the same plush red imperial furnishings and contrasts the over the shoulders backdrop of Armada victory with an Elizabeth wasted by the ravages of the now overlooking 'Time' and 'Death'. The Imperial crown that took pride of place is now being whisked away by (left-handed) cherubs, along with any vestiges of Elizabeth's power...

'... it seems more than a possibility that Elizabeth with Time and Death was commissioned not merely as a parody of the queen at her most powerful, but as a dismissal of Spain as the natural enemy of England and English monarchs, substituting instead the more universal Time and Death.'

Armada and Allegorical Portraits of Elizabeth I

Walker considers that the portrait's patrician owner must have fallen very much in the King's camp at the time of the 'Spanish Match' controversy.

I found Walker's chapter fascinating, the contested 'Bones' she refers to in her title are those of Elizabeth herself which were relocated by James I from a prime site under the main altar of the Henry VII chapel in Westminster Abbey to shared accommodation with her older sister Mary, whilst Mary Queen of Scots (James's mother) getting a massive new monument.

However, it was interesting that Walker makes no reference at all in her work to the alternative (and earlier) academic ideas that the allegorical figures might have been drawn from Petrarch. 


There is one difference between the image we looked at in A111 and the one that Walker shows in her figures (and in the cover art for the book) - the portrait is slightly cropped at the top, just sufficiently that the laurel wreath is invisible.

So I'm left wondering, did access to only a cropped image influence Walker's interpretation of the portrait, or was the image cropped so as to better fit the interpretation? Or.... (and no doubt most likely) was the cropping entirely coincidental, something that happened when the book was being setup for printing for example?

No answers - but perhaps that in itself is an excellent way to mark one of the key learning points from the Elizabeth I chapter, that interpretations between historians vary and will continue to vary as they try and evaluate the fragmentary and complex primary evidence.


  1. Campbell, H. (2007) ‘“And in their midst a sun”: Petrarch’s Triumphs and the Elizabethan icon’, in A. Connolly and L. Hopkins (eds) Goddesses and queens: the iconography of Elizabeth I. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, pp. 83–100.
  2. Peterson, K.L. (2018) ‘Picturing Elizabeth I’s Triumph of Melancholy’, English literary renaissance, 48(1), pp. 1–40. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1086/696110.
  3. Strong, R. (1987) Gloriana : the portraits of Queen Elizabeth I. London: Pimlico.
  4. Walker, J. M. (1998). Bones of Contention: Posthumous Images of Elizabeth and Stuart Politics. In J. M. Walker (Ed.), Dissing Elizabeth: negative representations of Gloriana (pp. 252–276). Duke University Press.

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Steven Oliver


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Edited by Steven Oliver, Sunday, 29 Jan 2023, 10:25

This was a surprise inclusion in a set of freebie postcards that I picked up from University of York library on one of my 'OU Wednesdays'. The cards promote the University Archives collections, and this image is the frontispiece of Christopher Saxton's 'Atlas of the Counties of England and Wales' (Tabula Anglia), the first atlas of any country. This hand coloured copy dates from 1590 and is in York Minster Library. 

I can now recognise Elizabeth's coronation robes, she is seated between figures who represent astronomy and geography, but still much on the engraving is beyond me - who are the couple in the image above the Queen's head and what are they up to?

The inscriptions translate as:

A gentle governess of Britain rules.

This mark of distinction shines for all to see.


While sad wars wear down around all the races. And blind mistakes wreak havoc upon the entire world. You bless the Britains with peace, long and true with your piety: (ruling with) even handed justice, wisely with gentle rein, Held dear at home, while celebrated abroad, and with a long rule you have this now for such a time, a kingdom everlasting.

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Steven Oliver

The Virgin Mother

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Edited by Steven Oliver, Sunday, 29 Jan 2023, 10:24

This is Damien Hirst's 'The Virgin Mother' at Yorkshire Sculpture Park a few months ago. I'd always thought it was just a bit overblown and kitsch and a rip-off of anatomical models, but now seeing it in a new light after reading Mary Joan Winn Leith's analysis in her book 'The Virgin Mary' in the 'a very short introduction' series. Everything from the nudity to the nipples gets a link to Marian symbolism!

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Steven Oliver

Jumping straight to Week 7

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Edited by Steven Oliver, Sunday, 29 Jan 2023, 10:24

A walk around Beverley yesterday and I bumped in to this! Mary Wollstonecraft lived at this house, 2 Highgate in Beverley, from age nine to 16. Apparently the location was only established four years ago. She will have received her education somewhere in the town, whilst her father was failing as a farmer.

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